In an April Gallup poll, 59% of surveyed employees said they would like to “work remotely as much as possible.” Furthermore, 59% of surveyed remote workers told Gallup the following month that they were very confident they are successfully meeting their job requirements.
Organizations are facing an unusual dilemma as they engage in returning employees to the workplace. The inherent bias that previously prevented managers from considering the possibility of working remotely have been blown out of the water by compelling data. A 2019 survey by Airtasker, for example, found that remote employees work an average of 1.4 days more per month than their colleagues who work in the office. That number translates into about 16.8 additional days of work per year. Furthermore, in a 2015 survey by CoSo Cloud, 77% of remote employees confirmed that their productivity improved when working from home.
This data offsets individual opinions anchored in an inherent disbelief in remote productivity, disproving the notion that the only productive employee is a seen employee. With benefits such as less commuting, fewer sick days, cost savings and flexibility, the case for working remotely has moved from being a nice option that managers can use as an arbitrary reward to an essential benefit and part of an organization’s talent retention strategy. The post-COVID-19 leader will face greater opposition from employees who don’t want to return to the workplace, armed with productivity figures indicating that there is no compelling reason why they should.
The issue is not whether employees are more productive in the office but, rather, which leadership skills are needed to engage a remote workforce. The post-pandemic remote workplace dictates a fundamental shift in approaches to leading. This new set of leadership skills includes the following three capabilities.
Effectively communicating with faces on a screen is a skill that encompasses knowing how to manage the flow of conversation; measuring the amount of input coming from the different images; and translating information into the larger picture, keeping employees abreast of how the organization is accomplishing its goals. It cannot be a one-way monologue of the leader talking to the screen.
There is a saying in traditional media that the camera never lies. The truth of that statement is grounded in the camera’s one-way transmission of images. It assumes that the camera does not look back, but in the case of virtual team meetings, participants can look back and observe the consistencies and inconsistencies of leadership behavior. Nonverbal communication is as observable as person’s face. The spotlight on leadership behavior is more pronounced, because it is being seen through the lens of a camera. The important leadership skill here is knowing how to ensure the alignment of the visual image and nonverbal behaviors. The goal is not to be an avatar with stiff movements and a digital monotone but, rather, an image-conscious leader who is aware that he or she is being observed.
The remote team still comes together as a working body to accomplish goals through interactions and mutual dependence. The inability to be in one physical space does not allow for the free-flowing, spontaneous sharing of ideas. As a result, leaders must rely on different approaches to keep employees engaged after a meeting is over. They must know how to structure virtual engagement so that team members can still contribute and engage with each other.
As we track the emerging trends of the “new normal” workplace, it is clear that the remote employee is going to be more a fixture than a favor. With this shift, team leaders will need to learn the new skills required to meet the challenges of a virtual workplace.